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TRACKLISTING:
1. Can You Hear Me? (10:11)
2. Middle Man (6:41)
3. Age of Foeces (4:09)
4. MindWarp (4:31)
5. Senescence (6:59)
6. Driver (5:25)
7. The Sleeper (13:39)

LINEUP:
John Hagelbarger – keyboards, saxes, woodwinds, lead vocals (3)
John Reagan – drums
Ron Rutherford – guitar, guitar synth, keyboards, bass, lead and backing vocals

Dissonati are a trio based in the Pacific Northwest region of the US. In the spring of 2006 drummer John Reagan (formerly of late Seventies outfit Harlequin Mass) formed a band called Elsewhen with Portland-based multi-instrumentalist John Hagelbarger; later that same year the duo teamed up with Ron Rutherford, another talented multi-instrumentalist (who is also the main composer of the music featured on this album). A couple of years later bassist Bill Bainbridge joined the band, which in early 2010 changed its name to Dissonati. The band have recently enlisted the services of bassist Ryan Hankins to replace Bainbridge in their live performances.

In spite of their undeniable chops and extensive experience, Dissonati do not claim to be the best thing since sliced bread, but rather a group of people who share a common love of writing and performing music in the progressive rock vein. Although the band members grew up with the historic bands of the “golden age” of prog, Reductio Ad Absurdum successfully avoids overt derivativeness, and  manages to sound fresh and original almost against the odds – something that often eludes younger, more ambitious acts. In fact, the many prog fans who constantly feel the urge to label anything they can lay their hands on will find themselves baffled by this album, which combines the experimental bent of RIO/Avant prog with a somewhat skewed, but very present sense of accessibility.

With the exception of the two longer (though not exactly “epic-length”) tracks that bookend the album, the bulk of Reductio Ad Absurdum consists of songs between 4 and 7 minutes with a recognizable verse-chorus-verse structure, though spiced with subtly idiosyncratic details that give their music a definitely unconventional twist. For one thing, quite unusually for a band whose members have reached their full maturity, Dissonati incorporate influences that go beyond the usual Seventies icons. Indeed, nods to Porcupine Tree and Steven Wilson – those standard-bearers of modern prog – can be detected in some of the more atmospheric passages of the album. However, if I had to compare Dissonati to one or more non-Seventies acts, I would mention Discipline and The Rebel Wheel,  two North American bands that share the Pacific Northwest trio’s obvious love of Van Der Graaf Generator, but have also manage to establish their own individual sound. Interestingly, it is John Hagelbarger who sounds closest to Peter Hammill in the only track where he sings, the quirky “Age of Foeces”; while Ron Rutherford’s voice is more in an understated singer-songwriter, sounding slightly hoarse and occasionally flat – which, even if not beautiful in any canonical sense, fits the music like a glove.

Opener “Can You Hear Me?” introduces the listener to Dissonati’s peculiar musical universe with doomy, industrial-sounding electronics and tense synth that blend almost seamlessly with melodic, almost catchy elements, and plenty of those mood and tempo changes that any prog fan would expect from a 10-minute track. Ron Rutherford’s dry but highly effective vocals follow the development of the musical thread, and the haunting keyboard washes and drawn-out guitar discreetly hint at Porcupine Tree, though with a personal touch. In “Middle Man” Rutherford’s deep, powerful bass lines come into their own, supported by John Reagan’s dramatic drumming and Hagelbarger’s eerie, slightly dissonant synth runs, while the chorus injects an element of catchiness that effectively blends mainstream and experimental tendencies. Hagelbarger’s solo spot, the above-mentioned “Age of Foeces”, brings to mind VDGG in the theatrical tone of the vocals, but the band’s strong individual imprint surfaces in the hammering harpsichord, twangy bass and echoing, distorted guitar solo.

With its almost infectious chorus and spacey suggestions, “MindWarp” is Rutherford’s own moment as a solo-pilot, as he handles all the instruments besides vocal duties; while “Senescence” and “Driver” juxtapose accessibility and complexity in a fashion reminiscent of Yes at their best – an impression reinforced by Rutherford’s stunningly versatile bass work offset by Reagan’s effortless drumming, often veering into jazz-rock territory. However, the album’s highlight comes right at the end, with “The Sleeper”, Dissonati’s own version of “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” – similar in structure to the legendary VDGG epic, but more cohesive and (most importantly) purified of any filler. In the 13-minute track, a haunting, almost cinematic instrumental section – sparse and darkly ominous at first, then culminating in dramatic guitar/keyboards interplay propelled by thunderous drums – is bookended by half-spoken vocals and subdued instrumental accompaniment.

With top-notch musicianship and solid compositional skills – an element that has become increasingly scarce on today’s oversaturated progressive rock scene – as well as a very sensible running time of about 50 minutes, Reductio Ad Absurdum manages to be original without trying too hard to reinvent the wheel (which is a common problem with younger bands). Eclectic without being rambling or overambitious, the album is an outstanding example of true “crossover” prog –successfully striking that elusive balance between the past and the present – and a genuinely enjoyable listen, with enough quirkiness to please those that do not like their music to take itself too seriously. The striking cover artwork, a painting (titled “Bridgehouse”) by Portland artist Brin Levinson, rounds out this unassuming but highly satisfying package.

Links:
http://www.dissonati.com/

http://brinlevinson.com

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SETLIST:
July, July!
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
Rise to Me
The Bagman’s Gambit
Annan Water
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
Don’t Carry It All
All Arise!
The Rake’s Song
Rox in the Box
O Valencia!
The Perfect Crime #2
This Is Why We Fight

January Hymn
When U Love Somebody
The Chimbley Sweep

June Hymn

The arrival of warmer weather heralds the start of the big concert season in the northeast US, taking full advantage of the many capacious outdoor venues of the region, as well as the usual indoor venues of every size that are available throughout the year. Obviously, concerts are also held during the colder months, but especially in the summer the offer of live music is so plentiful that even the most dedicated fans must pick and choose what gigs to attend – unless they have an endless supply of time and money.

According to our original plan, at the end of this week my husband and I would have headed out to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for our third NEARfest. As most of my readers know all too well, the event was not meant to be, but we found ways to fill the gap in the month of June, picking and choosing among the vast range of live gigs scheduled in our area. Our choice fell on two bands that, in their own very different ways, have become mainstays of our listening routine: The Decemberists and Black Country Communion – one an established outfit with six studio albums under their belt, the other  the latest supergroup to take the rock scene by storm. Neither of those bands, strictly speaking, are ‘prog’, though they have quite a few points of contact with the genre, and both have often been covered by magazines and websites geared towards prog fans.

We had been so lucky as to see The Decemberists for the first time on their celebrated 2009 tour in support of their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, a monumental achievement that won them many fans among the often rather conservative ranks of prog lovers. On that occasion, they were joined by Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the two amazing female vocalists that had guested on the album – which was performed in its entirety, much to the audience’s ecstatic reaction. On the other hand, their latest recording effort, The King Is Dead – a slice of song-oriented Americana, offering very little of the intriguing eclecticism of its predecessors, released at the very beginning of 2011 – had left me somewhat cold. We were nonetheless delighted to learn that they would be playing the same venue as two years ago – the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion, a largish outdoor theatre deep in the Maryland woods, almost a stone’s throw from Baltimore.

Such rustic surroundings seem to be the perfect complement for the warmly engaging music of the Portland-based quintet, a seamless blend of articulate, often challenging lyrics and eclectic music rich with diverse influences. In sharp contrast with the suffocatingly humid heat of the previous week, the cool, dry weather of the evening of June 13 made being outdoors a real pleasure – to the extent that some of the people sitting on the lawn rather than under the pavilion were longing for warmer clothing. Our excellent seats allowed us a great view of the stage, and the two big screens placed on either side were a boon to those who were sitting at the back. If compared to the prog gigs and festivals that we usually attend, the nearly sellout crowd was much younger on average, with a definitely higher proportion of women to men. Even if, in my personal view, The King Is Dead is probably be the weakest of the band’s releases, it has undoubtedly been a relatively major commercial breakthrough for them, exposing them to a much larger audience. It also shows a band refusing to get stuck in a rut or taken for granted, and more than willing to surprise their audience with bold changes of direction.

After  a short opening set by supporting band Best Coast, a rather nondescript, female-fronted indie/garage rock outfit who nonetheless seemed to have their own loyal following, The Decemberists came on stage at 9 p.m., greeted deliriously by the crowd. Stripped down to their basic line-up of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen, with bluegrass artist Sara Watkins standing in for Jenny Conlee (who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer), they delivered a strong, invigorating set, mainly revolving around The King Is Dead (performed almost in its entirety, with the exception of one track), but also including a number of songs from their back catalogue. According to Meloy, the songs on the setlist had been chosen for their affinity with the summer season – the show opening with the infectious “July! July!” (from their 2006 album The Crane Wife), and  closing with “June Hymn” (from The King Is Dead), performed as a second and final encore.

Though, from a prog standpoint, The Decemberists’ music is not as mind-blowingly complex as the genre’s most beloved bands’ – relying as it does on conventional song structures and the occasional catchy hook – there is no denying that the band’s members know their business, and then some. Watching bassist Nate Query swing a double bass around with the nonchalant ease of a consummate old-school jazz player, drummer John Moen add subtle, intriguing percussive touches, or guitarist Chris Funk wring poignantly wailing sounds from his lap steel guitar, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Sara Watkins (a recording artist in her own right, and already part of the tour prior to the announcement of Conlee’s illness) is also an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, though favouring the fiddle rather than the keyboards. She is also a fine singer, as proved by solo performance of “Won’t Want for Love” – though her voice has more of a gutsy rock feel than Becky Stark’s ethereal soprano, featured  in the song’s original version. Indeed, while the distinctive rumble of Conlee’s Hammond organ may have been missing, Watkins’ talented contribution complemented the alt.country slant of the newer material quite perfectly.

In spite of his nerdy, bookish appearance (this time around tempered by a full beard, which made him look somewhat older and more rugged), Colin Meloy is an outstanding frontman, not afraid to dive into the audience together with his acoustic guitar to be hauled back on stage by the crowd during the rousing encore of “The Chimbley Sweep”, and not averse to peppering his between-song banter with bits of pointed political commentary. While his voice may be an acquired taste, it fits the band’s music to a T, and his witty raconteur personality is undeniably pivotal to their appeal. Furthermore, he is an extremely versatile interpreter, conveying a sense of genuine menace in the stunning rendition of “The Rake’s Song” (one of the highlights of the show, drenched in dramatic red light, and enhanced by Sara Watkins and Chris Funk’s energetic drum-banging), while pleading heartbreakingly in “Annan Water”, and orchestrating the crowd’s enthusiastic response in the eminently catchy “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime # 2”.

As I previously pointed out, I was not as impressed by The King Is Dead as I had been by The Decemberists’ other albums, which all get regular spins in our player. However, the same songs that had sounded a tad flat and uninvolving on CD came alive on stage, and acquired an appealing edge that the polished production did not always adequately get across. For all the polite, somewhat highbrow mien of their music, once on stage they rock with an endearingly old-fashioned intensity, getting the crowd to sing along, clap, dance and wave their arms in tried and true rock’n’roll fashion. Even in the absence of elaborate trappings and gimmicks, and relying only on a good light show and their own stage skills, The Decemberists are one of the most entertaining live acts on the current scene, capable of imbuing their musical output with a rare sense of warmth and genuine emotion. The more listener-friendly approach displayed on The King Is Dead  may have attracted a younger, hipper audience, but this has not turned them into one of those countless “here today, gone tomorrow” bands. With a solid catalogue, a cohesive, highly accomplished line-up and a great songwriter and frontman in Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a force to be reckoned with, and –  regardless of those pesky tags and labels – a band firmly rooted in that great rock tradition that prog sometimes seems to have  forgotten.

 

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Leslie Anne Levine    (4:12)
2. Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect (4:31)
3. July, July! (2:51)
4. A Cautionary Song  (3:08)
5. Odalisque (5:20)
6. Cocoon (6:48)
7. Grace Cathedral Hill  (4:28)
8. The Legionnaire’s Lament  (4:44)
9. Clementine (4:07)
10.California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade  (9:50)

LINEUP:
Colin Meloy – lead vocals, guitars, percussion
Chris Funk – guitars, pedal steel, theremin
Jenny Conlee – Hammond organ, Rhodes piano, regular piano, accordion
Nate Query –  upright bass
Ezra Holbrook – drums, percussion, backing vocals

Many of those people who (sometimes in spite of themselves) were won over by The Decemberists’ award-winning 2009 release, the sumptuous rock opera The Hazards of Love, will certainly have felt the impulse to delve into the Portland band’s back catalogue, and thus come across their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. Though the specialized press has often placed the band under the ‘progressive rock’ umbrella (as  was definitely the case with the first article I read about them,  in the autumn of 2006), true-blue prog fans are sharply divided about this issue. While the more conservative set often refuse to acknowledge anything not sounding like the Seventies bands, the more open-minded fans have equally often embraced the band as a firm favourite.

As is the case of all Decemberists releases but The Hazards of Love (and possibly their 2004 EP, The Tain),  Castaways and Cutouts is an effort that can only in part be called progressive. In fact, a good proportion of the songs follow in the footsteps of  the great American folk tradition, influenced by its European counterpart, yet at the same time noticeably different.  It is nevertheless an album that prog fans can definitely find appealing (unless they are of a seriously close-minded disposition), and even features a couple of tracks that might be tagged as ‘epics’. Based on a series of vignettes often focused on the plight of the less fortunate members of society (as the title implies), handled in terms that range from the downright grotesque to the deeply compassionate, the album undeniably possesses a powerful lyrical impact – which has become a constant of the band’s output, making very effective use of Colin Meloy’s fertile, erudite imagination and remarkable skill as a wordsmith.

Meloy’s stories, deeply rooted in the folklore of both the Old and the New World, are not meant to leave the listener cold, even resorting to shock tactics in their stark description of seedy milieus and events. Indeed, some of the situations depicted on  Castaways and Cutouts are not for the faint-hearted, even without resorting to excessively graphic detail. Luckily, not all is not doom and gloom on this album. Meloy approaches his subject matter, no matter how sordid or depressing, from a perspective of poetic realism, presenting the events with a compassionate stance, avoiding the almost masochistic wallowing in misery that, for instance, seems to be almost the rule for progressive metal bands. His voice, with its somewhat nasal twang and precise enunciation, may be an acquired taste for some, but is also quite perfect for the sort of storytelling displayed on the album.

I have always been impressed by The Decemberists’ ability to produce memorable opening tracks – in my view, one of the real strengths of a band in compositional terms – and “Leslie Ann Levine” is no exception. A hard-hitting account of suicide and stillbirth, told from the point of view of a dead baby, it is the follow-up to “We All Go Down Together” (featured on  Picaresque, the band’s third studio release), which, however, does not pack the same punch, either musically or lyrically. While its folksy, accordion-driven tune, with its vague French flavour, is only mildly wistful, the lyrics drip with sadness and regret. Some of the songs are straight-up acoustic folk numbers, where the music seems to take a back seat, and as such might appear too ‘simple’ to those craving the complexity (whether authentic or fake) of ‘mainstream’ progressive rock. The profoundly disturbing, dirge-like “A Cautionary Song” (a tale of prostitution motivated by abject poverty), and the wistfully romantic love songs  “Grace Cathedral Hill” and “Clementine” belong to this group, where the minimalistic musical accompaniment allows the narrative component to emerge, driven along by Meloy’s plaintive, nostalgia-filled vocal style.

On the other hand, the upbeat “July! July!”, whose deceptively optimistic mood conceals another disquieting tale of violent death, and the haunting dreamscapes of “I Dreamed I Was an Architect” display a catchier, more listener-friendly approach, with memorable choruses and a richer instrumental background. The aptly-titled “Cocoon”, a dreamy, almost slow-motion number inspired by the science fiction of the late Kurt Vonnegut, feels almost reassuring in the midst of so much turmoil; while “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is an infectious divertissement sporting some of the wackiest rhymes this side of Lewis Carroll. That leaves the two aforementioned epics, though in terms of running time only album closer “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade” might be described as such. However, the mesmerizing, Hammond-drenched strains of “Odalisque” – another pitch-black, convoluted tale of sexual perversion, rape and (probably) infanticide – are such a towering achievement as to give the impression of a much longer song. “California One”, on the other hand, celebrates the beauty of nature and youth with a deep vein of nostalgia for a bygone past – its almost 11 minutes, driven by piano, pedal-steel guitar and touches of theremin, evoking a distinct Sixties West Coast feel.

An outstanding debut album, lavishly packaged in a booklet graced by the quirky illustrations of Carson Ellis (Colin Meloy’s then-girlfriend, now his wife, and a professional graphic artist), Castaways and Cutouts is highly recommended to those who are constantly seeking for both lyrical challenges and music that manages to be catchy and thought-provoking at the same time. Though here they will not find the myriad complexities and head-spinning changes of canonical progressive rock, open-minded (and curious) prog fans could do much worse than get acquainted with the wild and wonderful world of Colin Meloy and The Decemberists.

Links:
http://www.decemberists.com

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